Reflections on the Nature of Empathy

I am sick. It is miserable. But it has got me mulling over a few thoughts that I actually have fairly often about the nature of empathy. When someone I know is sick, I might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Hope you feel better soon.” And I am sorry. I don’t want them to be sick. But why not? I don’t know that it is possible to separate how much of that feeling is real sorrow for their sake and how much is selfish. It is probably true that I’ve been there before and know, at least to certain point, what they are going through. But is that empathy? There is a certain removal or detachment when you hear about someone’s misfortune and you yourself are not at that moment experiencing it.

And sometimes I think it is possible to feel greater empathy for someone going through something you haven’t experienced. Because experiencing something desensitizes you, too. For example, I’ve had a bad cold before. In the moment, when I’m stuffed up and nauseous and feverish it feels… just awful. I can’t remove myself from it. But when my husband gets the same cold and I’m over it, I know it isn’t the end of the world. I might even feel (I know this is terrible) irritated. However, when my sister was diagnosed with cancer, something I’ve never been through, the magnitude of my feeling was overwhelming. Yes, I know these two situations are not comparable, but the thought of her facing the pain of treatment and possibly even death was incredibly scary, partly because of the… mystery, for lack of a better word. I am NOT saying I felt what she felt, but could the depth of feeling, the intensity, the not-knowing, actually have been greater for those of us that hadn’t been there than it would have been for, say, other cancer survivors? Maybe their perspective was more constructive, they certainly understood the situation with greater specificity, but perhaps making it through cancer causes you to look at it from a new angle. When you think you know what someone is going through because you’ve been there, it might seem less earth-shattering.

Another comparison might be the way some people can feel more moved by the plight of an abused animal than by a fellow-human. We don’t know exactly what the animal feels. They can’t tell us, which makes their suffering somehow more poignant.

Language and communication are funny things. We spend so much time on them, but words are seldom sufficient to convey emotion or physical pain. I might feel badly if no one makes an effort to comfort me, but when they do their well-intentioned remarks often fall flat. And not through any fault of their own! I can think of many personal examples. When my sister (different sister) died, my friends and co-workers were supportive and sympathetic. Most hadn’t been through that kind of loss, so the shock and dismay they felt on my behalf probably came closer to the actual feeling of loss I experienced right when I heard than someone who’d been through it before. None of them though, had any idea what the nature of our relationship was, so they couldn’t understand how I really felt. Just the way it goes.

Maybe these words belie whatever knowledge of suffering I think I have. If I seem insensitive, I apologize!

I was going to try to examine my feelings about the humanity of Jesus in terms of empathy, but I don’t have the energy and this post got much longer than I intended! I’ve probably thoroughly confused you if you’ve made it this far anyway. Suffice it to say, the deepest comfort, the deepest feeling of understanding I ever feel does not come from other people but from the wordless moments I spend with God.

Matthew 11:28-30: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Romans 8:26: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.


Is God’s Love Warm and Fuzzy?

I’m reading slowly, but I have started the first chapter of Four Views on Salvation in a  Pluralistic World. The first essayist (John Hick) believes that salvation can be achieved through religions other than Christianity. Hick’s background is in conservative Christianity. He went to seminary and preached for many years before embracing his current, more liberal views. Some of his sentiments echo those I encountered while reading about Universalism; the belief that all people will eventually (before death or after) be saved. Hick raises a few good questions, but it seems to me that the primary problem that traditional Christianity fails to address for so many people is the problem of evil. How could a good and loving God allow good and moral people who perhaps simply didn’t understand the Christian perspective to suffer eternally?

That’s a problem for me, too. I do not buy the explanation that God offers all the opportunity to come to Jesus… at least not in the narrow way that some Christians seem to define it. If I am to accept traditional Christianity, I have to believe that God reveals Jesus in different ways to different people. I am lucky, though. My experiences of God have led me to trust in his goodness and I don’t feel at all called to worry about the eternal souls of my fellow-humans. I can only share my experience, pray, and try to live in a way that reflects my faith… after that, it isn’t up to me.

That said, I still don’t feel at peace with my understanding of hell. As I’ve mulled this question over for the last few months, a few different verses having nothing at all to do with one another keep coming to mind. And perhaps they support the liberal views about which I’m reading.

The verses are listed below, but here’s my question: Could God’s love actually be the instrument of our torment? If in fact we cannot be separated from the love of God, even in hell (Psalms 139:7-8), then perhaps feeling God’s eternal love for us when we are not reconciled to him is incredibly painful. I would compare it to the concept in Romans 12:20; if we show our enemies kindness, perhaps the pain it causes them will result in their repentance. We don’t cause them pain to effect revenge, but to show our love. But this begs the question: Can we be made right with God from hell? Psalms 86:13 could be interpreted differently, but I think it speaks to the possibility.

What do you think? Am I way off base?

Psalm 139: 7-8: Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Romans 12:20: To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Ps. 86:13: For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Romans 8:38-39: For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.